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Entries in tablets (1)

Friday
Jan132012

Living in the Future: PADDs

by Michael Fisher

Know what away teams damn near always carry? Tricorders for scannin’! Phasers for stunnin’! Communicators for squawkin’! Sometimes they even pack specialized tools for more potent self-defense.

Pictured: space water-balloon mortar. Mess with Starfleet
and get soaked through to your drawers, punks.

 

Know what away teams almost never carry, though? PADDs. The forgettable, un-sung heroes of the Star Trek universe.

Before 2010, anyone—even the more casual Trek fan—could be forgiven for forgetting what a PADD is. The devices represent the futuristic equivalent of a clipboard: a utilitarian, information-carrying slate no more remarkable to the citizens of the Federation than a cling-film sketch pad to us.

…and in 1966, that’s just what they were.

 

The TOS-era PADD progenitor, never named on screen but often referred to as simply an “electronic clipboard” in fandom, was used almost exclusively in this way. It was a vehicle for orders that needed signing and reports that needed a supervisor’s review. In classic TOS style, a few electronic greeblies above the cling-film writing surface hinted at the device’s futuristic capabilities, but we never got to see them showcased on screen.

By the time of The Next Generation and the other spinoffs, the handheld tablets had shrunk to a much less cumbersome size, and came in a variety of shapes and even colors. Devised in the era of the Apple Newton, at the dawn of the age of the PDA, these new devices were envisioned with powerful networking capabilities that, in the words of the TNG tech manual, would allow a crew member to “fly the Enterprise from a PADD while walking down a corridor.” Awesome!

Of course, we seldom, if ever, saw functionality like that in use. Most of the interesting tasks in the 24th century fell to the real stars of the away teams: the tricorders and phasers. The most action a PADD ever got was to get its face shattered and used to scratch up a hapless Starfleet doctor in one of DS9’s stranger explorations of mental illness.

Even our evolved future-selves can’t escape the
brutal spectre of clipboard-on-palm violence.

 

So at one time, PADDs might have taken the crown of Star Trek’s Most Unremarkable Prop. That is, until humanity built a slew of more-capable devices… three centuries early.

 

iPad

“The question has arisen; is there room for something in the middle…
better than the laptop, better than the smartphone[?]”

—Steve Jobs, iPad announcement, January 2010

 

The story of the iPad’s triumph in carving out a new category of computing device has been told and re-told so many times that it’s easy to forget it was once predicted by many to be a flop. I was one of those who couldn’t see the appeal of this massive iPhone-without-the-phone, and many tech pundits wondered if Apple had finally made its first major misstep since its resurrection.

What happened instead: Apple gave humanity its first PADD, and it turned out to be more awesome than any Starfleet equivalent. It turns out that consuming media (and to a limited extent, creating it) is much less cumbersome with a tablet than, say, a laptop or netbook. There are no fan ports to worry about covering up, the software is already optimized for touch input, and the battery lasts forever by comparison. And unlike the PADDs of Trek, which often seemed confined to specialized tasks, the iPad’s mobile OS can run many apps simultaneously.

Ordering lunch from Foodler or browsing the Space Street Journal?
Both. At the same. time.

 

Of course, we know the PADDs of the future are eminently more sophisticated devices, with subspace transceivers and exotic, durable casings (not including the display, it seems). But unless you’re talking about communicating with an orbiting starship or playing technology caber-toss, those minor advantages are irrelevant to the user experience.

PADDs were dull props in Trek because they were utilitarian; they existed to make scenes more dynamic, by giving our heroes another way to interact. Often this was accomplished via hand-delivery, despite the PADDs presumably advanced networking ability. The Voyager episode “Good Shepherd” used this to good effect, with the camera following a PADD as it passed from person to person, from Astrometrics to Engineering, finally arriving on deck 15. (As a result of all the “clipboard passes,” that’s a pretty brutal episode if you’re playing Beer Trek, by the way. Which we do not endorse!) The resulting tour of previously-unseen corners of Voyager made for a very unique opener to an episode, but the PADD itself was performing a very mundane function: ferrying orders from one part of the ship to another. Why they didn’t just raise Crewman Harren on Space-gChat is beyond me, but I digress.

By contrast, modern-day tablet owners use them to access their entire online life: personal and work email; instant messaging; photo albums; Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. They use tablets to watch movies and TV shows, play oversized versions of Angry Birds, and to read the latest from the sharp writers behind some Star Trek fan sites. The list goes on. While we’ve seen characters on Star Trek use PADDs for personal use (Jeremy Aster watching some home video in the TNG episode “The Bonding” is a good example), we always get the sense that such use is an anomaly, and the tablets of Star Trek exist mainly to clutter up desks.

Picard, moonlighting as a technology reviewer, sweats under a deadline.

 

The challenge for Trek fans: making all of this daily internetting look a little more LCARS, and a little less leatherette (seriously, stitched leather is an Apple design motif; it’s… weird). Fortunately, there’s an app for that. Actually, there are a few.

 

Apps

To be clear: there are many tablet computers on the market that don’t bear a fruit logo on their casing. They come in all shapes and sizes, and some even come in exotic colors, echoing Geordi’s special, red “Engineering PADD.” Most non-iPad tablets, however, run a specialized version of Google’s Android software called Honeycomb, which hasn’t gained much traction in the marketplace. Consequently, the app selection (LCARS and otherwise) lags behind by a considerable margin. Our focus for apps in this article, then, will stay on the current market leader: Apple’s iPad, running the iOS operating system. Here are those I’ve found most notable in my time with the device.

 

PADD CBS Interactive, Inc. $4.99

Easily the most fully-featured and detailed of the bunch, the simply-named “PADD” is one of the few officially-sanctioned Star Trek apps for the iPad. Essentially a Cliffnotes version of the Star Trek Encyclopedia, PADD provides very general details about items of interest in the Trek universe, in any of ten categories. The interface is richly detailed and full of nice touches; almost every inch of the display is tappable and produces a sound effect from the show. Animations cover every screen transition, and even static screens are livened up by random shifting of the interface’s colors. The result is as you’d expect from an official app: the entire experience is a very close approximation of the LCARS panels we saw on the show.

The down side to all of this elaborate window-dressing, of course, is that it’s not a background element of a TV show; it’s now something you’re actually trying to use for a specific purpose. In that light, it’s a rather convoluted and inefficient system. To call up the entry depicted in the screen shot above required only three taps, but took about fifteen seconds by the time all the animations, beeps, and Majel Barrett audio clips were finished playing. Once the article was displayed, the ambient background noise continued… and continued. CBS must’ve really wanted to show off its sound library, because the extraneous beeping is never-ending. Very rarely do two seconds pass without yet another (frequently out-of-context) chirp or trill. Don’t get me wrong; it’s cute, and it’s fun, but it all feels a bit overengineered. And for $4.99, well, there are better values out there. Like…

 

STARSS Christopher Kriens $2.99

Whereas “PADD” is a resource strictly for Star Trek-related information, STARSS offers something much broader, in a less-bloated package. Essentially an RSS reader in an LCARS wrapper, STARSS doesn’t just provide another Trek-themed, tappable playground for your itchy console finger; it lets you read your usual news and blog feeds in a 24th-century format. If you grow tired of reading in the LCARS-standard font (which, according to LCARSCom.Net, is “SWISS 911 Ultra Compressed BT”), you have the option of opening a browser window to see the article in its original setting. A small row of LCARS interface elements remains below, ready to jump you back into the STARSS universe when you’re through reading.

Despite its streamlined, lightweight nature, this app has quite a few extras. The “navigational scan” animation at the top, persistent across most screens, is tied to the iPad’s accelerometer, so the star field shakes and shifts as you move around. The buttons flanking it, while serving no purpose, do beep when tapped; it’s a short, simple, TNG-movies-era beep, instead of the random, too-long effects in “PADD.” Best of all, there’s an option for “Red Alert on Shake”: Give the iPad a quick jolt, and the interface shifts to alert mode as the klaxon blares. It’s these little details, combined with the app’s responsive, stable behavior, that awards it “Champion Standing” in my book. The only app I find superior (albeit with a very big caveat) is…

 

LCARS Internet Media Reader Krueger Systems, Inc. $0.99

News. RSS. YouTube. Twitter. Facebook. Podcasts. Flickr. Craigslist. The list of services you can access through this app is ridiculously long. Reader’s info page in the App Store says it all: “Seriously, this is why you bought an iPad.”

Well, almost. If this app was the end-all-be-all of PADDs it claims to be, it would be my default method for interacting with my iPad. It would also probably score higher than a three-out-of-five rating in user reviews. Sadly, neither is true.

One need only look a little deeper at the app’s info to divine the reason for its woes. “Last updated: May 27, 2010.” In the time since Reader’s last software update, iOS has received a full-point upgrade, and the background components of Twitter, Facebook, and other sites have changed significantly, as well. Current app reviews complain of buggy or nonfunctional features as a result—something I can readily corroborate.

In short, this most ambitious of all PADD apps would indeed be the most successful—if it worked as advertised. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait for the absentee developer to return before we can render a final opinion.

 

Skins

 

I had no interest in the Barnes & Noble Nook Color…
until I saw this. (via ChingChongPingPong)

 

While alternative platforms may be lacking in apps by comparison, the silver lining is a doozy: users of those platforms are often adept at modifying the software underneath. In the case of the photo above, a user created a custom theme for the Nook Color’s Android operating system, replacing its home screen with a very nice LCARS interface. Theme replacements like these are usually much more immersive than an app can provide, and they’re fairly simple to install for even moderately computer-savvy people. Skin replacements have been around for a while; I used to carry a Motorola Q with an LCARS theme back in 2007:

It’s pretty awesome to see your mundane appointments listed as
“Upcoming Missions” on the home screen, lemme tell ya.

 

These kind of modifications aren’t confined to the open operating systems, of course: jailbreak an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad, and you can work wonders:

(via MacThemes.net)

 

…and even obsolete operating systems have felt the tender touch of LCARS:

LCARS on Symbian. Makes me want to snap up some old tablets
and make up some orders that need delivering! (via Gism Butter)

 

 

LCARS on PocketPC. Check out the Tuesday appointment
for some Lulz. (via WinCustomize.com)

 

The takeaway: for as long as there have been powerful mobile devices, people have dreamed of making PADDs out of them. And thanks to the diligent efforts of skilled people spending time coding and Photoshopping, those dreams have finally been realized.

There has never been a better time to LCARS-ify your mobile life. Whether you’re content to leave your tablet in stock configuration and confine your geekitude to apps, or you’re a hardcore Trekker who wants the fully-immersive skin replacement experience, you have options. Even if you’re not sold on the idea of owning a tablet, phones are getting larger than ever, so if you’ve been feeling the urge for more Okudagrams with your email, grab a cup of Raktajino and start clicking some of those links above. You’re just minutes away from more Living in the Future.